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Authors: Cathy Lamb

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Such a Pretty Face

BOOK: Such a Pretty Face
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such a pretty face

Books by Cathy Lamb

JULIA’S CHOCOLATES

THE LAST TIME I WAS ME

HENRY’S SISTERS

SUCH A PRETTY FACE

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation

such a pretty face
CATHY LAMB

KENSINGTON BOOKS

www.kensingtonbooks.com

For Janelle

Prologue

Ashville, Oregon—1980

I
know when it started.

It was June 14th, two days after my tenth birthday. An eerie red-gold haze enshrouded the moon. Frothing gray and black clouds drifted across it, as if they were trying to hide its evilness, but couldn’t quite overpower that glowing white light.

I noticed the moon as we sped toward the river, our car careening back and forth over the yellow lines as she chanted and I clung to my terrified sister.

The rain drizzled down through the darkness, stopped, then pounded the top of the car, as if millions of tiny black cannonballs had been released from the bag of the devil himself.

“Momma, stop!” I cried as she barreled through a red light.

But she couldn’t hear me, not with the other voices clamoring in her head. She whispered, she raged, she yelled at her hallucinations. “Get out of here, Punk. This isn’t about you. I’m not getting tied down to that chair again! You won’t put your tentacles and ropes on me!”

I tried the other name. “Helen! Can you hear me, Helen?” She didn’t respond, smashing her floppy yellow hat down on her head with both hands.

I realized, almost ill with panic, that the voices had won. It had been a long, soul-crushing battle, but I tried to save us anyhow. There was nothing else left to do. “There’s no chair! I’ll tell Punk to leave and take the tentacles and ropes with him. I’ll get him for you!”

“Punk is bad; he’s chasing us with his red eyes and he won’t let us go. I’ll save you, girl kid!”

We swerved again, snaking all over the road, barely missing a truck.

“I scared, Stevie, I scared,” my sister whimpered, her little face tucked into my neck. She smelled of soap and lemon shampoo, her fingers sticky from an orange Popsicle.

I was scared, too—so scared my brain felt as if it were rattling in my head, my knees knocking together. “It’s okay, Sunshine. Grandma and Grandpa will be here soon.”

But I knew it wasn’t going to be soon enough.

I knew that.

We whipped around a corner and skidded onto a one-lane, wood bridge. Helen slammed on the brakes; the car fishtailed, and we crashed into the rail. She scrambled out, swearing at the “spying, bad Punk,” then wrenched open our door and tried to yank us out of the car. Sunshine clutched me, screaming, as I gripped the seat, trying to save us both, my charm bracelet cutting into my skin. When Helen grabbed my heels and my hands lost their white-knuckled grip, I grabbed the door handle, then the door.

But she was strong—the voices made her stronger—and my fingers were pried away, one by one, Sunshine clinging to my waist as she shook with fear. Helen half dragged, half carried us to the rail as the boiling clouds parted and that strange moon mocked us in the distance, the only witness to our dance with death.

She had wrapped tin foil around the waist of her black dress, and it ripped as we fought her, as we scratched and shrieked. She was wearing her best black heels, and they tapped on the wood of the bridge, the black line up her nylons perfectly straight, which was so unusual, so surreal, it scared me more than anything else.

“Now you’ve made Command Center mad!” Helen yelled, wrestling us over to the rail. “Don’t destroy the communications!”

We pleaded, we tried to run, and she punched both of us in the face, shooting us backward onto the bridge. “Shut up, girl kid! Shut up, Trash Heap!” She had never done that to us before, and it stunned me into silence, into obedience, for one shattered moment. “They’re spying on us! They can see
everything!

Dizziness sent my mind into a whirl and I wrapped my arms around Sunshine, who was gasping with fright and bleeding. Helen ripped us apart, and I knew that what was left of my momma, if there was anything gentle and kind left in her, was way, way back, at the end of a labyrinth of tunnels in her troubled mind, crisscrossing the lines of insanity.

Her arms banded across my chest and waist as heavy raindrops hit me, the wind lifting my skirt up. I didn’t recognize the raw, terrified scream that tore from my throat as I squeezed her neck and bony shoulders with my arms, my tears mixing with the rain, her floppy yellow hat flying off into the wind.

“No, Momma, don’t,” I begged. “Please, Momma! Stop!”

“Leave us alone, Punk,” she commanded the moon. “You can’t read my mind anymore. You’re done. It’s all done. Take Command Center with you down to hell.”

She heaved my struggling body up on the rail and briefly held me close, rocking me like a baby, then kissed me on the lips. I saw Sunshine fight to stand up, blood streaming from her head. She tugged on our mother’s arms, kicked her shins. “I hate you! I hate you! Let go of Stevie! Let go of sister!”

Her words flew into the churning sky, swirled around the moon, and then they were gone, making no impact on our mother.

“I am saving you,” Helen yelled at me, the stormy wind whipping her blond hair around her face. “I am saving you from
them
.” Then she dropped her head back and said, her voice edgy and guttural, “Save yourself. Do not save
it
. Don’t save that Trash Heap.” She shoved me over the rail of the bridge, then yanked my clinging hands from around her neck, our fingertips the last to touch before I tumbled and somersaulted into the rushing river.

It was freezing cold and pitch black, the water wrapping me up tight as I plunged through the silent darkness. My feet never hit, and I paddled to the top, choking, sputtering, knowing Sunshine would soon join me.

I have to save her. I have to save Sunshine.

I fought against the water as the current swirled me away, waves splashing against my face, surrounding my body like a wet vice, my head still reeling from pain. I twisted in the river’s grasp and saw Sunshine, her pink dress billowing out like a bell as she was thrown over the rail into the murkiness of the river. Her cry, high and thin, echoed under the bridge.

I swam toward her, my arms pinwheeling as hard as I could, but I was panicking, gasping for breath, the water dragging me away, my black hair covering my face.

Between the shifting shadows I saw Helen standing on the rail of the bridge, arms outstretched, head back. The red-gold haze parted and the moonlight illuminated her slim form. I couldn’t hear her, but I knew she was singing and I knew what song it was.

In a remote corner of my mind I noted her outfit again as she teetered on the rail. She was wearing her black cocktail dress, her best black heels, and her pearls. She got dressed up to kill us, I thought, as another wave swamped me.
She got dressed up to kill us.

She curved her body, palms together over her head, then dove into the choppy water. I never saw her come up again. They did, however, find her best black heels later. Downriver.

I saw the pink dress but not for very long, as another current came, perhaps the sister current to mine, and swept Sunshine away. I heard her terror, I heard her sobbing my name, I hollered back at her, told her I was coming, I promised I would save her—but in the inky blackness, fighting off the chill of the water and the swirling waves,
I lost her.

I heard her death in the rigid silence as soon my ragged voice was the only one left in that tragic, shattered night.

I have not saved her.

I have not saved my sister.

She is gone because of me.

Under that moon with the eerie red-gold haze and those frothing clouds, that’s where it all began.

I started inhaling food the next day. Mountains of it.

It continued for more than two decades.

And the song my momma was singing?

It was “Amazing Grace.”

My momma, after throwing her two daughters off a bridge, was singing “Amazing Grace.”

1

Portland, Oregon—2005

I
am going to plant a garden this summer.

With the exception of two pink cherry trees, one white cherry tree, and one pink tulip tree, all huge, I have a barren, dry backyard and I’m tired of looking at it. I almost see it as a metaphor for my whole life, and I think if I can fix this, I can fix my life. Simplistic, silly, I know, but I can’t get past it.

So I’m going to garden even if my hands shake as if there are live circuits inside of them and a floppy yellow hat dances ominously through my mind.

I’m going to build upraised beds, a whole bunch of them, and fill them with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, radishes, lettuce, carrots, peas, and beans. But not corn.

I’m not emotionally able to do corn yet—too many memories—but I am going to plant marigolds around the borders, and pink and purple petunias, rose bushes and clematis and grapevines.

I’m going to stick two small crosses at the back fence, but not for who you think. I’m going to build a grape arbor with a deck beneath it, and then I’m going to add a table so I can paint there, as I used to, before my memories took that away. I’m also going to build three trellises for climbing roses over a rock pathway, one arch for me, Grandma, and Grandpa, which will lead to another garden, with cracked china plates in a mosaic pattern in the middle of a concrete circle, for Sunshine.

This may sound way too ambitious.

It is. But I see this as my last chance to get control of my mind before it blows.

I can wield any type of saw out there, and I have to do this, even if it takes me years. That I can even think in terms of a future, is a miracle.

Why? Because two and a half years ago, when I was thirty-two years old, I had a heart attack.

I used to be the size of a small, depressed cow.

The heart attack led to my stomach strangling operation, and I lost 170 pounds. Now I am less than half myself, in more ways than one.

My name is Stevie Barrett.

This is a story of why I was the way I was and how I am now me.

I am going to plant a garden.

 

Not even the glass walls muffled the screaming and shouting.

I leaned back in my swivel chair, away from my computer, and peeked into the conference room as the words “You are a cold, frigid snowwoman” echoed out after the words “I would rather remove my toes with pliers than sleep with you one more time!”

Two seconds later, high-pitched shrieking mixed with a baritone shout. “Living with you is like living with Antarctica…. I can’t stand seeing your pinched-up, wrinkly prune face…. Move out of my house; you have poisoned it with your venom long enough…. You and your yellow teeth can shove it…. It’s not your house; I’ll burn it before you get it…. You are a mean, dickheaded prick with a small prick!”

Then there was a crash, which was a drinking glass hitting the glass walls of the conference room. I was quite surprised it didn’t shatter. I sprinted into the conference room as my boss, and the owner of this law firm, Cherie Poitras, grabbed her client around the waist, a woman dressed to the nines in high heels and a cream suit. The woman had actually crawled up on the conference table and lunged for her husband. Cherie and I wrestled her off, but not before the husband’s attorney put him in a headlock to keep him from strangling his soon-to-be ex-wife.

Even in a headlock, the husband, a local politician who stressed the sanctity of marriage and traditional values, struggled to get at his wife, his arms and legs flailing around and about like a trapped octopus.

I work as a legal assistant at Poitras and Associates. I work for Cherie Poitras directly and sometimes another attorney. I work with clients and witnesses, do a ton of legal research, write up documents, organize mountains of paperwork, summarize depositions, etc.

Sounds boring, but it’s often exciting.

Cherie Poitras is five feet nine inches tall and wears cheetah patterned/striped/shiny four-inch heels and therefore towers over most of the male attorneys in town. She’s very private, but from what I know she had a lousy childhood, grew up in Trillium River here in Oregon, and adopted four kids who had been abused. She loves a good fight, thrives off the law, and runs her firm like an honest, compassionate pit bull who must win every legal case no matter how hard she must bite. She is single, not surprisingly. How many men could handle Cherie? Not many.

Simply put: They’re not enough for her.

We have a classy sign in the entrance of our elegant entry with gold lettering. It says, “
WELCOME TO POITRAS AND ASSOCIATES
.
WE’LL KICK SOME ASS FOR YOU
.

Anyhow, we handle a ton of different legal work. Personal injury. Environmental. Insurance. And we also handle many of the city’s most spectacular divorces.

People spewing obscenities at each other, throwing things, and storming out is normal for our firm. We had one divorcing wife grab a knife out of her purse, stomp
across
the conference table, and try to stab her ex-husband. We had a shooting, husband at wife. He missed because Cherie tackled the husband. We’ve had fistfights between attorneys. Pencils and legal pads have been thrown, as has, one time, a small dog (dog wasn’t happy), a designer purse (blackened an eye), and a shoe (it was a Manolo Blahnik).

You want to see ugly? Become a divorce attorney.

“Hello, Stevie. Good of you to come help,” Cherie called out, her voice melodious, mellow, as she dragged her wriggling, livid client off the table. I grabbed the client around the waist, too, but she was strong and rage made her a madwoman with superhuman strength.

“Come on, Mrs. Leod, let’s go, please, let’s take a break,” I said. My black curls fell out of the bun I’d had them in as her hand swooped over the back of my head. “How about some coffee with fresh vanilla cream?”

“I am not going to take a break!” she screamed. “I don’t want fresh vanilla cream. I am going to put my hands around his chicken neck and squeeze until his tongue falls out!”

I remember seeing Mrs. Leod on television, standing beside her husband, chin up, the feminine moral authority, talking about “the alarming erosion of family values in our state.”

“If I have to run through all of our money, Frank, with legal fees, I’ll do it,” Mrs. Leod yelled. “In fact, if you don’t back off I think I’ll hold myself a press conference and tell them about the account in the Bahamas and your little dalliances into leather and whips—”

“Shut up, you stupid, prudish, witchly woman….”

They continued shouting at each other, full throttle, full blast. We got her off the conference table, and I fell to the ground, on top of Mrs. Leod, but that did not stop her impressive tirade. Cherie and her short, leopard-print skirt fell on top of me. “She’s a slippery little thing, isn’t she?” Cherie panted. “Get her legs. I’ll get her shoulders.”

I gave Cherie an exasperated look. Why did I have to get her legs? They were more dangerous than the shoulders. A knee caught me in the gut and I said, “Ooof.”

“I’ll buy you perfume and pretty lotions, Stevie. Now, hop to it.”

“Fine,” I huffed. We both chuckled, couldn’t help it.

The husband’s face was becoming a darker red, stuck in his headlock, but he was fighting like a furious four-legged octopus. I knew his attorney, Scott Bills. Scott had been in the army reserves for decades. If he had wanted to snap Mr. Leod’s neck, he could have, but neck snapping wasn’t on the agenda that day.

“Hello, Stevie,” he said to me, calm and friendly.

“Hello, Scott,” I said, trying to grab at Mrs. Leod’s legs, which were flailing around, kicking me, one heel flying off into the glass wall. Cherie was on the top half of the woman, who had well and truly lost her mind.

“Don’t think I won’t tell everyone about your secret credit cards and precisely how you used them in Vegas!” Mrs. Leod said. “You big-nippled pervert!”

The woman was a psychiatrist. What would she make of herself, I wondered.

“If I could get it at home, I wouldn’t get it there,” Mr. Leod said, voice hoarse from the headlock. “And talk about big nipples! I could land a plane on yours.”

Now that set our tiny she-devil off.

“How’s Jae?” I asked Scott of his wife. The she-devil hit me in the chin with a knee. “Now, Mrs. Leod…take it easy.”

Mrs. Leod was not in the mood to take it easy. “Do you know why I don’t want to have sex with you? It’s the size of your dick. It’s so small it couldn’t make a banana slug come.”

“Maybe it’s because you’re dry as a desert,” Mr. Leod said, sinking lower in Scott’s arms, his breathing labored. “It’s like having sex with sand!”

“You can’t turn me on, sandman! Sweaty, sticky hands aren’t sexy, Frank—not sexy. And you would know what it’s like to have sex with sand, wouldn’t you, because of the Maui trip you went on when you were supposed to be visiting your mother, the old fart!”

“Jae’s doing pretty good, Stevie,” Scott said, as if we were at a dinner party. “I’m taking her and the kids down to Long Shore this weekend. There’s a kite festival.”

“That sounds fun. The weather is supposed to be beautiful.” I dodged a flying foot.

“Screw you!” Mrs. Leod said, arching in her fury. “Screw you forever!”

“I don’t want to screw you,” Mr. Leod squeaked out, his face now an even deeper red. “You are a sick sorceress.”

A sorceress? Now that was clever. Me and Cherie exchanged another look.

“Hey, when is your annual dinner, Cherie?” Scott asked.

Cherie had a dinner every year, complete with a barbeque and a band to raise money for foster kids.

“October.” She shoved Mrs. Leod’s swinging arms back down as the woman spit out bad words through clenched teeth. “You and Jae better be there. And you, too, Stevie.”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Scott’s octopus client was struggling but losing steam, because he was having a problem sucking in enough air, his arms flailing. “Can I say, Stevie, without getting slapped with a harassment suit, that you are simply gorgeous?”

I couldn’t help but smile, even though Mrs. Leod’s knee caught me in the chest.

“I hate you, you happiness-sucking prune!”

“I hate you, too. Your evil spell over me is gone. Vannnisshhhheed!”

A spell? Cherie winked at me. It was so witchly here today.

“Thank you, Scott,” I said. “I appreciate it. I’m trying. Walking every day.”

“Doesn’t she look fantastic?” Cherie gushed, her perfectly polished nails holding Mrs. Leod down. “Gorgeous. Stevie, you are an inspiration to all of us.”

“You won’t get a dime of my inheritance,” Mrs. Leod hissed, her voice not quite as shrieky. I lay across her legs. “I curse you!”

“I earned that inheritance being married to you,” Mr. Leod said, in a whisper voice, his face flushed. That headlock was good! Not too much, not too little!

“Let me up!” Mrs. Leod yelled. “I will not tolerate this for one second loooonger!”

“Release me,” Mr. Leod hissed out, his neck in truly a bad position. “Reeeeleeasse me.”

“Not unless you promise you won’t try to decapitate your husband,” Cherie said, tone so mild, sweet even.

“I’ll release you, Frank,” Scott said. “But I can’t have you mangling your wife. It’s impolite.”

“This is none of your business!” Mrs. Leod shot out. “We demand that you let us go at once!”

“Stay out of this, Scott,” Mr. Leod said, his voice tiny.

“This is
my
business,” Cherie said. “No killings in Poitras and Associates. It’s a rule we have here. The blood makes a mess, and I won’t have anyone staining these new wood floors.”

“I don’t think I’m an inspiration,” I said to Cherie and Scott, still holding onto Mrs. Leod’s kicking legs. “My stomach has been squeezed into something the size of an egg. Gorging is now impossible no matter how much I want to shovel in chocolate cake. Buying clothes has also been a problem.” I exhaled. Mrs. Leod finally relaxed her murderous self a bit.

“I’m sure,” Scott agreed. “Every month you’re skinnier.”

Mr. Leod had finally collapsed, so Scott let him sink down to the floor.

“Easy does it,” he said to his client. The client fell straight back. Scott made sure he was breathing, then said, “Jae said the same thing when we ran into you downtown last week. She said, ‘Stevie Barrett looks terrific.’”

“I’ve told her not to lose one more pound. Not a pound. This is enough,” Cherie said. “Now, everyone, take a breath, relax. Deep breath in, deep breath out, breathe in, out…We’re not going to talk any further unless you two promise not to try to kill each other.”

Mrs. Leod was trying to catch her breath, still lying splat on the floor. “I want him dead. I want him to be a corpse.”

“Over my dead body,” her husband wheezed. “Over my dead body, you wicked warlock woman.”

“You are the spawn of the devil,” she said.

“You
are
the devil.” He coughed, inhaled. Our octopus had had enough.

“Remember, no killing in Poitras and Associates,” Cherie said cheerfully.

I eyed Scott from the floor, where I still held Mrs. Leod. “Lovely to see you.”

“And you, Stevie.”

“Do tell Jae I said hello.”

“I’ll do that. Have a great day, you two.”

“See ya, Scott,” Cherie said, then smiled.

We hauled Mrs. Leod up and out the door. She tried to jam herself in the door frame, legs and arms splayed out, but we wrangled her away and down the hall. She still managed to call out, “I hope your pecker dissolves, I do, you ball-less wonder!”

“She’s sure clever,” I said to Cherie.

“Absolutely. Have to admire the vocabulary.”

“Good-bye, sand pit!” Mr. Leod called, his voice scratchy. “You barren wasteland!”

Scott would remove his octo-client from our law offices when Cherie’s office door slammed shut.

They would meet again another day, if neither had gutted the other. Mr. and Mrs. Leod were still living in the same mansion in the hills, so who knew.

We left Mrs. Leod in Cherie’s office to cool off. She kicked the door. Three times. We had a temper-tantrum-throwing kid.

“Nothing like an acrimonious divorce to get the blood pumping, is there, Stevie?” Cherie smiled at me. We’d gone rafting last year for our firm’s party and paintball shooting another time to “relieve the stress of warring spouses.”

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